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Alexandria Senior College lecturer lists possible solutions for imperiled wetlands

Minnesota has lost a significant percentage of its wetlands over 200 years, says a University of Minnesota ecology professor.

EP Environment
Lowell Anderson

ALEXANDRIA โ€” When it comes to water in Douglas County, lakes get all the attention.

After all, it's the Alexandria lakes area, not the Alexandria wetlands area. You can't wakesurf a wetland and the ambiance isn't quite conducive to hosting happy hour on a pontoon.

However, the county is home to many wetlands as well, and wetlands are in trouble.

Minnesota has lost a significant percentage of its wetlands over 200 years, University of Minnesota ecology professor Miriam Gieske told a Senior College gathering on April 25.

"In southwestern Minnesota, 95% of all wetlands are gone," she said.

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Wetlands have been drained by a ditch system that made farming possible in many parts of the state. Wetlands slow the fast pace of water, reduce soil erosion, and give sediment a chance to settle before the water flows downstream, Gieske said.

Wetlands also give water a chance to soak down and restore groundwater, and they help to prevent flooding downstream. They are also home to many kinds of wildlife.

Without wetlands, pollution, erosion and flooding all worsen.

"We feed a lot of people with our agriculture, but it also has costs," Gieske said. She also pointed out that not all crops actually feed people โ€” much of the corn crop, for example, goes to create ethanol to fuel vehicles, which she said isn't worth it, as ethanol requires almost as much energy to create as it provides.

Researchers are trying to develop techniques to mimic the benefits of wetlands, she said. Water level control structures can keep more water in farm soil, meaning that nitrogen, commonly used as fertilizer, would also stay in the soil. These structures would make the land more resistant to drought.

Another technique researchers are looking at is installing wood chip bioreactors, which can break down nitrogen and turn it into a gas before it is able to pollute waters downstream.

Neither technique helps with habitat, she said, although lake associations, the advocacy group Clean Up the River Environment, and local chapters of Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever are working on that end.

In recent years, Minnesota has diverted millions of dollars to protect or restore thousands of acres of wetlands in western Minnesota. The money comes from state lottery proceeds.

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Draining wetlands, once standard state and county policy, can now cause trouble with downstream neighbors. On May 8, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported a dispute between farmers in Lyon County where two farmers dug a trench nearly three-quarters of a mile long through a cattail marsh. Downstream of them, two farmers are now speaking out about their fear that the trench will channel heavy rains toward their property and flood them, the paper reported.

Reporter Karen Tolkkinen grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree in 1994. Driven by curiosity and a desire to learn about the United States, Karen Tolkkinen has covered local news from Idaho to New Hampshire to Alabama and landing at the Echo Press in Alexandria in 2017.
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